Coronavirus conundrum for rural community leaders

“Once the central government’s ‘Go To Travel’ campaign kicks off, the coronavirus could spread nationwide. If infections continue to increase because of it, that would be a disaster man-made by the government.”

That’s according to Miyashita Soichiro, the mayor of Mutsu City in Aomori Prefecture. He was speaking at a meeting of the city’s anti-coronavirus task force on July 13.

The controversial campaign is aimed at boosting domestic tourism hit hard by the virus with offers of discounts and subsidies. The mayor’s strong stance against the scheme turned out to be one of the factors that led the government to exclude Tokyo from the program.

Tourist appeal

Mutsu, with a population of more than 56,000, is a provincial city in the northernmost prefecture on Japan’s main island of Honshu. The city’s key industries include fishery and forestry.

It usually draws more than 800,000 tourists a year to attractions such as Osorezan Reijo, one of Japan’s three most “sacred” places. Yaen-Koen is also popular for being home to the most northerly monkeys in the world.

But the number of tourists coming to hotels and inns in the city in May was down about 35 percent on the previous year.

Mutsu sits at the very tip of the main island of Honshu.

The travel campaign would surely provide a boost to Mutsu’s tourist industry, but why is the mayor so set against it?

“The campaign will certainly prompt people to travel from areas with a higher risk of infection to low-risk places. If that happens, what we have endured so far will all have been in vain,” Miyashita told a news conference. “Whatever campaign the government decides on, Mutsu has a responsibility to protect its own citizens.”

Before the government declared a state of emergency in April, the city started asking residents to stay in Mutsu as much as possible. Officials also called on people now living outside Mutsu, to refrain from returning to their hometowns. These efforts have enabled the city to keep COVID-19 cases to zero so far.

Medical resources

The mayor is deeply concerned because of the limited resources at its sole medical institution. The public Mutsu General Hospital is the only medical facility for the roughly 80,000 residents of Mutsu and the surrounding municipalities. If infections are confirmed in the area, the hospital must handle all cases. But it has only four beds dedicated to patients with infectious diseases.

In addition, the hospital has just 10 ventilators and no ECMO machines for people with serious symptoms. ECMO machines pump oxygen into the blood, allowing a patient’s heart and lungs to rest while the immune system works to defeat pathogens.

Furthermore, the hospital is grappling with a chronic shortage of doctors and nurses, forcing patients in some departments to wait up to four hours before they can get a diagnosis.

If the hospital has to deal with coronavirus patients, it would clearly disrupt normal operations.

Mutsu General Hospital is the only medical facility for the roughly 80,000 residents of Mutsu and the surrounding area.

Miyashita clearly understands the significance and the necessity of the travel campaign. He used to work for the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, which is in charge of the campaign. He joined the ministry after graduating university and spent 11 years as a bureaucrat before running for mayor.

But he is clear on the problems with the current plan to reinvigorate Japan’s tourist trade.

“As infections continue to spread, the campaign should first be limited to travel within prefectures, rather than nationwide,” he says. “Each prefecture must use its wisdom to come up with effective ways to promote tourism.”

Staying local

Mutsu now plans to introduce a campaign to encourage people in nearby municipalities to use local hotels and inns in Mutsu.

As in many other places, Mutsu has already taken steps to support its economy. They include ¥300,000, or about $2,800, in payments to food service providers, 80-percent coverage of property tax for accommodation providers, and gift vouchers for shoppers. A budget of around ¥1.1 billion, or roughly $10 million, was used to fund the measures, despite the city’s under-pressure finances.

With infections rising across Japan once again since July, it’s no easy task for the city to further implement economic measures.

“The mission of municipal leaders boils down to protecting the lives and health of their citizens,” says Miyashita. “The economy is directly linked to people’s lives, of course. If the economy cools down, I know things can get tough. But at a time when the virus is still spreading, we should focus on what we can do to protect people, rather than asking them to weigh the economy against human life.”

With limited financial resources, local governments are facing the grave challenge of protecting people from the virus while keeping regional economies afloat.